As Bob Dylan would say, “The times they are a changin’.” In the
business world, those changes have meant an explosion in Cloud software
adoption, integrated systems, automation, AI, and predictive
intelligence. These digital tools are helping companies rapidly
accelerate operations and tend to customers faster than ever. But with
all our software efficiencies, are we losing the personal skills that
build lasting relationships?
Business software like CRM, integrated phone systems, and social
media are fantastic for time saving, but we need to remember that what
comes AFTER those touchpoints is just as important for building great
customer experiences. Software and soft skills must go hand-in-hand,
especially when research has shown that the #1 priority for talent development in 2018 was training for soft skills.
So, what exactly is a soft skill? Which soft skills are in-demand?
How can we build a company culture that encourages soft skills? Let’s
examine how software and soft skills can unite to build better customer
Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills
Hard skills are measurable, teachable abilities that are easy to quantify. For example, a degree in Public Relations is a hard skill. Knowing how to code HTML is a hard skill. These are usually the types of skills we list on our resumes to show our experience and the breadth of our abilities. By comparison, soft skills are more abstract. Soft skills are subjective and are more akin to emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication abilities. Problem solving, active listening, and adapting to change are all examples of soft skills.
However abstract they may be, soft skills are a must for business
success; and they’re in-demand from employers in every industry. A
recent survey by the Stanford Research Institute International and the
Carnegie Mellon Foundation found that Fortune 500 CEOS believe 75% of long-term job success depends on soft skills and only 25% depends on technical skills. Employers like these are starting to pay attention to the power of soft skills.
Hiring managers are particularly focused on soft skill development,
with 58% believing a lack of soft skills in their workplaces is limiting
productivity. Lucky for us, skills like emotional intelligence and
communication can be matured with the proper guidance.
In-Demand Soft Skills
A few years back, LinkedIn analyzed its data for in-demand soft skills and found the most sought-after skills among employers were:
- Communication – Well this isn’t vague at all...
Communication can mean a lot of things. In the world of soft skills,
though, communication refers to behaviors like active listening, nonverbal skills,
patience, and business-appropriate language. Communicating is about
more than how you speak. It’s also about how you listen and react.
- Organization – Whether or not our attention spans are getting shorter is up for debate,
but in the very least, we as a society are multi-tasking more than ever
before. That’s why solid organizational skills are so critical.
- Teamwork – This one seems obvious, but without
emotionally intelligent individuals, teamwork can quickly unravel. The
ability to effectively brainstorm and execute a vision together circles
back to hiring managers’ concerns about productivity. You can’t be
productive without teamwork!
- Punctuality –Show up to a client meeting 30 minutes
late and you’ll leave a very poor impression behind. Even being a few
minutes late to an online meeting can send the wrong message.
Punctuality shows you respect the other person’s time and you value
communication with them.
- Critical Thinking – Critical thinking helps us
problem solve on our feet and make educated choices. Management teams
who know they have competent critical thinkers will feel a lot more
comfortable letting those employees run free. It requires less hands-on
engagement from the managers who can use that extra time to focus on
- Social Skills – Whether you’re at a conference,
meeting a new client, or simply touching base with a customer, adequate
social skills are the cornerstone of building relationships. Social
skills extend to etiquette, too. Are you doing international business?
Do you understand the subtleties of how the other party conducts
- Creativity – Another no-brainer soft skill,
creativity is always a desirable trait for an employee. We are all
expected to work within certain parameters at our jobs (solutions
offerings, budgets, contract limitations, etc.), and when it comes to
positive customer experiences, we must sometimes get creative with
problem resolution to stay within those boundaries and still satisfy the
- Interpersonal Communication – Interpersonal
communication can be both verbal and non-verbal. It’s how we exchange
feelings, information, and meanings during face-to-face communication.
Individuals with more empathy tend to be better with interpersonal
- Adaptability – How does that phrase go? Adapt or
die? The ability to adjust to changing client needs, changing internal
expectations, and unexpected events makes any employee an asset.
Especially if you work at a startup or high-growth environment, being
ready and willing for change is essential.
- Friendliness – Be nice. More importantly, be
genuine. People are smart, and if they think you’re being phony, your
professional relationship will certainly dwindle.
Although they didn’t make LinkedIn’s list, empathy and integrity are
also fundamental. To build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships,
employees must be able to listen effectively and adapt their
communication for the person or people with whom they are interacting,
whether it’s a fellow employee or a customer. Empathy is a powerful ally
for building trust, credibility, and connection.
While most employers recognize the importance of soft skills, many
aren’t sure how to nurture those skills for productivity and customer
interactions. What can we do to build better soft skills? How will those
added skills contribute to a great customer experience?
Bridging the Gap Between Software & Soft Skills
The bridge between software and soft skills is collaboration. The
successful marriage of the two requires a balance: using the software to
optimize and streamline customer experiences and using the soft skills
to expand on those experiences and build lasting value. Here are a few
tips for developing soft skills in your employees:
- Build soft skills into your processes and culture.
Maybe your customer service process takes place mostly through email.
Which soft skills need to be in play during that process? Would a
personal follow-up call make sense? Start assessing processes to
discover where software and soft skills can better intersect.
- Provide practice opportunities before getting in front of the customer. Want
to beef up an employee’s ability to connect to and engage with
customers? Have them lead a meeting to practice public speaking, active
listening, and other desired soft skills in a safe environment. You’ll
boost their confidence in their soft skills and prepare them to think
dynamically during the real interaction.
- Elect mentors. As you integrate more soft skills
focus into your company culture, the existing teams will adapt. Choose
an employee with solid soft skills to mentor new employees and
demonstrate through his/her own actions the behaviors engrained in the
rest of the team.
If you want to go “hard core” on soft skills, do a training needs
analysis first so you understand which soft skills your teams need to
work on. Then, establish a training program and follow it by putting the
employees in situations where they can practice and apply those new
For new employees, consider establishing a soft skills assessment,
and make your desired soft skills clear during the interview process.
When I was hired at TAI, I had to take a personality test that measured
my compatibility with existing team members (teamwork), my communication
skills (interpersonal and empathy), and my conflict styles
(adaptability, critical thinking, etc.). I personally found it very
interesting to learn those things about myself. Some of my soft skill
weaknesses were things I would never have otherwise realized.
If a test/assessment is too formal for you, build in soft skill goals
as part of performance reviews. Ask employees to acknowledge a soft
skill they’d like to improve on and make it a goal to build that skill
by the next review.
A great customer experience requires more than automated responses
and fast output. Behavioral adaptations, emotional cognizance, and
proactive problem solving can take a customer experience from good to
great by building meaningful connections. Without meaningful
connections, we risk losing repeat business, positive recommendations,
and in some cases even friendships with our best customers. Remember,
hard skills can change, but soft skills are evergreen for strong
customer and coworker relations.